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Africa

No opposition, no internet: Benin election raises fears of authoritarianism

media A woman prepares to vote at a local primary school during Benin's parliamentary elections, in the main city of Cotonou, 28 April 2019. Yanick Folly / AFP

Turnout in Benin's parliamentary polls on Sunday was roughly 20 percent, as voters angry at new electoral rules restricting the opposition stayed away. Access to the internet was closed down. Rights groups fear that the west African state, long held up as a model of democracy, is sliding into authoritarianism.

"It is difficult to see why the president has felt the need to embark on what amounts to the most astonishing attempt to dismantle a democratic political system," comments Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at the London-based Chatham House.

It is all the more astonishing because of Benin's "emblematic importance for the whole of francophone Africa as a pioneer of democracy," he told RFI.

That model is currently being tested.

Five years ago, the Beninese population could choose from 20 parties for the 83 parliamentary seats. This year, there were just two.

And for the first time in the country's democratic history, not a single opposition candidate took part due to tough new eligibility rules, keeping many of the five million registered voters away out of protest.

The new rules make it harder for parties to contest an election. They are so strict that the entire opposition was effectively barred from fielding candidates in Sunday's poll.

Only two parties allied to President Patrice Talon - the Republicans and Progressive Union - met the new conditions.

Internet restricted

"There has been violations to the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the past in Benin," comments François Patuel, a west Africa researcher with Amnesty International, referring to the arrest of senior political figures and journalists in the run up to polling. "But the fact that they happened on Election Day is extremely worrying," he told RFI.

For the first time too, the internet was shut down, with social media and messaging apps blocked.

"This prevented human rights defenders and journalists from reporting what was happening on the ground," continues Patuel, linking the move to a wider pattern of repression in the west African nation.

"As early as February, protests were banned in several locations (...) decrees were taken to ban protests, which were broken up by force. So the violations of the rights to freedom of expression in the context of the parliamentary election is extremely worrying," he said.

Electoral code under fire

Last week, security forces fired tear gas as two former presidents, Nicéphore Soglo and Thomas Boni Yayi Yayi, addressed an impromptu demonstration protesting the government's new electoral code that has sparked the wave of anger.

"By blocking the internet, the government wanted to mask the fact that the vote was overwhelmingly boycotted by the population and hide the violations to the electoral code," comments Julie Owono, Executive Director of Internet Without Borders.

The government claims the electoral reforms were intended to bring together the country's several hundred political parties into streamlined blocs. Not everyone is convinced.

"Censorship is becoming the norm even in the most stable of democracies in Africa," Owono told RFI.

From reformer to destroyer

Benin has been known as one of Africa's most stable democracies. It embraced multiparty politics which swept across francophone west Africa at the beginning of the 1990s like no other nation, after a series of coups, countercoups, and a Marxist dictatorship.

For Chatham House's Paul Melly, the president is "dismantling the foundations of the Benin democratic, political, and constitutional system," without cause.

"He was elected by a comfortable margin [in 2016], he's in mid-term, the economy has reasonable prospects, and he has delivered some really concrete practical results, such as strengthening national finances. So, it's really hard to see why Talon has done this," he says, referring to his flirt with authoritarianism.

Talon, a former businessman, also known as the "king of cotton," had an opportunity a few weeks ago to appease public anger over the electoral process, after it emerged that even government parties did not meet the criteria to compete. However, Melly says he "spurned that and now he is going to end up with a rubber stamp parliament and his own credibility in democratic terms absolutely wrecked."

The president is however apparently not worried. His presidential spokesman Wilfred Houngbedji told AFP that "the resentment will pass, and that "on Monday, life will resume its normal course."

No official time has been given for the release of the results, though there is little doubt that the new parliament will almost certainly back the president.

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